Simfoni Nibbs, the founder of Books ‘n Bush Tea, first came on my radar in 2020 when she was interviewed on an Instagram Live and I’ve followed her page ever since. So, when she announced that she would be starting a book truck business on the U.S. Virgin Islands, I was intrigued and excited for her endeavour.
Generally, it’s difficult and expensive to access books in the Caribbean. Since most books are published outside of the region, they must be imported, and those costs are transferred to customers. When Dockside Booskhop in the Virgin Islands closed in 2013, it left the island without a brick-and-mortar bookstore.
Simfoni, who taught Kindergarten kids in Philadelphia, is committed to leading the charge in opening a bookstore to help fill this void. She has proven herself to be an ally, not only of Caribbean literature, but of spreading the love of reading and providing a bookstore experience for Virgin Islanders.
So, I’m happy to have Simfoni here and for our discussion on her new business. Below is our conversation.
Tricia: Simfoni, thank you so much for joining me and congratulations on the book truck! Can you give an update on the progress?
Simfoni: Thanks, Tricia, so much for having me! It’s amazing how much support we’ve received from the Caribbean community in such a short span of time. The Books ’n Bush Tea Book Truck is almost finished being outfitted here in the States, then we’re taking it home to the Virgin Islands! Our Book Truck Book unveiling has aligned perfectly with the start of Read Caribbean Month, so I’m over the moon about that.
Tricia: Tell me a bit about your background and what was your exposure and interactions with books growing up?
Simfoni: I grew up in the Virgin Islands, and I am the daughter of a teacher. I started reading at a very young age, 3 years old. I attribute the love I have for reading now to me being exposed to books at such a young age. Growing up, a trip to Dockside Bookshop was the best thing that could happen to me. I would spend countless hours in the store picking out a book and then finishing it in the backseat of the car before we got home. I still remember how the aisles looked and the staff that worked there. It has become somewhat of a core memory for me, and it is a magical feeling that I hope children get to experience when they hop onto the Books ’n Bush Tea Book Truck.
Tricia: Dockside Bookshop closed around 2013 and left a void in terms of the bookstore experience in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Was this the event that got the wheels turning in your mind about doing something?
Simfoni: Oddly enough, Dockside Bookshop closing in 2013 actually wasn’t the event that got the wheels turning in my mind. In 2019, I lived in Philadelphia and had the chance to visit Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Germantown. That visit was what got the wheels turning for me. The bookstore was so welcoming and had such homey vibes every time I visited. Although it was about a 30-minute drive from where I lived at the time, I never wanted to leave, and I’d stay until closing time sometimes. All the cozy couches and the different conversations that would take place on said couches always made me feel so comfortable anytime I visited. I immediately thought, ‘This is what the VI is missing.’
Then when COVID hit and schools went virtual, I was still teaching in Philadelphia. So, I decided to visit my family in the Virgin Islands since we’d be out of school for just two weeks to slow the spread. As you know, it was much longer than two weeks. I spent the next year and a half living between Philly and the Virgin Islands. During that time, I worked on Books ’n Bush Tea day in and day out, while teaching my Kindergarteners. I like to say that Books ’n Bush Tea is my “pandemic baby” because during the pandemic is when things really started picking up and I was able to gain so much momentum with it.
Tricia: With the closure of Dockside, how have people been accessing book? Is it efficient and sustainable in your opinion?
Simfoni: Since being in the Virgin Islands, I’ve noticed that most people access books by ordering online from places like Amazon (which charge exorbitant shipping fees by the way). I one hundred percent do not think this is a sustainable practice for several reasons. The main one being you simply cannot get the bookstore experience this way. The staff that know you by name, the cozy layout of the store, and the hand-picked suggestions¾these are things that come with the bookstore experience that can never be replaced.
Tricia: As a kindergarten teacher I’m sure that you’re always thinking about the kinds of books you want to read to your students. For your mobile book truck, what kinds of books and merchandise will you be offering?
Simfoni: We’ll be offering Caribbean-authored and/or Caribbean-illustrated books. Everything from Caribbean cookbooks to Caribbean board books, you’ll be able to find it on our truck. We will also offer Books ’n Bush Tea merchandise, such as our mugs and t-shirts. And you know we can’t forget the bush tea! We’ll be offering locally-grown bush tea from locally-owned and homegrown Caribbean businesses only. We want to use our platform to uplift and support smaller locally-owned bush tea brands.
Tricia: That sounds wonderful! So why did you decide to focus this business idea as a book truck as opposed to a traditional brick and mortar store?
Simfoni: So, the original plan for Books ’n Bush Tea was for it to be a brick and mortar store. But, one day when I was scrolling on Instagram, I stumbled across the Gogo Book Truck page, which was based in South Carolina, and it was absolutely stunning! Instantly I thought, ‘This is what we need at home.’
I did some digging and found the person that designed that book truck, and he’s now designing ours. I am very pleased with the decision to launch as a book truck because that will allow us to save on overhead costs, such as rent and electricity bills (which is definitely not the cheapest in the U.S. Virgin Islands).
Tricia: Over the last two years, for me, my eyes have become opened to the number of Caribbean authors that are being published yearly. I’m familiar with Cadwell Turnbull and Tiphanie Yanique as Virgin Island authors, but what other authors are you planning to have available on your shelves?
Simfoni: I wholeheartedly agree. Before the pandemic and before Books ’n Bush Tea, I couldn’t even name 5 Caribbean authors. I know it’s an ambitious goal, but I am planning to have authors from every Caribbean island on our shelves. Kacen Callender, Celeste Mohammed, Talia Hibbert, Kei Miller, Cherie Jones, and Elizabeth Acevedo, just to name a few. Caribbean people are not a monolith, and I hope to display that with the titles that will be on our shelves.
Tricia: Since this is a mobile business, are you planning to tour various locations throughout the island, or will it be in one location?
Simfoni: Yes, since we are mobile, the goal is to keep the truck on the move as much as possible. We want to be able to visit all three islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and maybe even some islands in the British Virgin Islands as well. While on each island, we plan to make appearances at several locations, including schools, libraries, summer camps, youth nonprofit organizations, and so forth.
Tricia: When you sit and think about this journey you’re on to bring book access back to the Virgin Islands, what do you hope will be the impression you make on book lovers on the island?
Simfoni: When I sit and think about this journey, I am sometimes brought to tears. I hope that Books ’n Bush Tea will show Virgin Islanders and Caribbean people alike that our stories are important and that our stories deserve to be told. I also hope that the younger generations in particular learn that it is okay to take up space and to be unapologetic while doing it.
Tricia: Do you plan to offer an online bookstore at this time, or will the focus be on in-person sales?
Simfoni: We do plan to offer an online bookstore in the future, maybe closer to the end of the year. However, right now all of our energy is focused on getting the book truck up and running and going on the Book Truck Tour. Once the buzz of the book truck calms down a little, I anticipate us offering an online bookstore, especially for book lovers who may be abroad or on the U.S. mainland.
Tricia: What are you hoping to achieve long-term with Books n’ Bush Tea and your mobile book truck?
Simfoni: Long term, I hope to have at least one book truck on each island and dare I say, a fleet of book trucks across the Caribbean. The hope is that Books ’n Bush Tea will become a household name. I want that when people think of literacy and Caribbean reads, the first thing that comes to mind for them is Books ’n Bush Tea.
Tricia: Thank you Simfoni for being here and sharing your passion for books and access! All the best to you on this endeavour.
Simfoni: Thank you Tricia for this opportunity! I truly appreciate your support. I look forward to welcoming you onto the Books ‘n Bush Tea Book Truck very soon!
Tricia: I would love that!
Learn more about Books ‘n Bush Tea on Instagram.
Photo courtesy Khyle Davis, 360 Media.
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